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During busy week, Biden makes time for summit of Southeast Asian nations

Chris Megerian and Erin B. Logan, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

However, Biden believes that closer ties in Asia will provide his administration strategic leverage in dealing with Beijing, making this week’s ASEAN summit an important part of his approach to the region.

“The Biden administration’s strategy is to contain China,” said Eyck Freymann, a doctoral candidate in China studies at the University of Oxford. “They just don’t use that word.”

The president, he said, is hoping “to build an alphabet soup of overlapping coalitions,” with the idea that “if you build enough of these coalitions, it’s an impenetrable thicket.”

Biden has already taken steps to strengthen such alliances. In September at the White House, he hosted the first in-person meeting with leaders of four major democracies with interests in Asia.

Though Biden and the leaders of Japan, India, and Australia — a group known as the Quad — did not mention China in a joint statement, it was clear Beijing was on their minds. Following their meetings, the leaders said they had recommitted “to our partnership, and to a region that is a bedrock of our shared security and prosperity — a free and open Indo-Pacific, which is also inclusive and resilient.”

Less than two weeks before the Quad meeting, Biden announced a new security partnership with the United Kingdom and Australia, known as AUKUS. In addition to increased cooperation on issues like cybersecurity, the U.S. plans to work with Australia on a new fleet of nuclear-powered submarines, allowing its fleet to travel further and stealthier in a hotly contested region.


Joshua Kurlantzick, a senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations, suggested that there’s an opening for the U.S. because China has turned off other countries by throwing its weight around.

“China is pursuing this aggressive, sort of in-your-face diplomacy,” he said. “It’s just totally unproductive and they’ve been undermining themselves.”

Daniel Russel, a former State Department official who now works at the Asia Society Policy Institute, said American distribution of COVID-19 vaccines is one way to make headway in the region. Although China was faster to market its vaccines in Southeast Asia, there’s skepticism about their effectiveness and growing interest in U.S.-developed versions.

“This is another example of where it’s the American technology that looks best from the Southeast Asian point of view,” Russel said.

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